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Prague Autumn

Guy Rundle Pollyanna politics and global social movements

In September the eyes of the world will turn to Prague, where the G8 nations are meeting — and where a global network of protestors hope to exact the same sort of civil disobedience and publicity victory as occurred in Seattle at the end of November last year.

The Prague autumn will be a decisive test for the emergent movement, opposing the extension of unregulated free trade to every facet of life on the planet. Lack of easy entry past Czech borders, and the possibility of a heavy police crackdown will hit hard — the movement will reach a crisis point from which it will either move to the next level or dissipate entirely.

It would be fair to say that the 1998-1999 global anti-World Trade Organisation (WTO) protests took many of us by surprise, and that this demands some re-examination of the forces and processes for change that exist today. The World Bank, the WTO and the pro-free-trade first-world press have pulled out all the stops in their efforts to portray the protestors as a ragbag of luddites, protectionists and economic illiterates, only to find that the protest movement had put down roots in so many separate areas of social life — churches, unions, students, the professional-managerial classes — that such misconstruction merely damaged the credibility of the vilifiers. The World Bank’s James Wolfensohn and the WTO’s Mike Moore bend over backwards in public to talk about the costs and benefits of free trade, as the machines they nominally run grind on remorselessly, imposing futile major projects, and murderous structural adjustment programs on the non-developing world. But they are smart enough to know that they face a real challenge.

So where did the protest come from, and why did it suddenly catch fire? The small but growing movement against global marketisation was given a double boost in 1998, when the Jospin Government withdrew France from discussion towards the establishment of the Multilateral Agreement on Investment at the same time as the UK anti-genetically modified foods movement won mass support, cleared GM foods from all the supermarkets, and brought the hitherto unassailable Monsanto to its knees.

These victories seem to have focussed a movement that had already begun to coalesce with new methods of organisation. The expansion of the Internet has allowed special interest protest groups to operate more efficiently and communicate more effectively, but it was only when this was combined with new modes of organisation that an event like Seattle became possible. Learning from the anti-structural/command excesses of the 1980s, the organisation of diverse organisations via affinity groups, protest councils and the like has allowed for protests that can have a greater degree of strategic planning and organised tactical response than was the case fifteen years ago. The configuration of protestors within smaller groups focussing on issues of particular interest to them minimises the need for preliminary debate about organisational styles, membership and the like. People go to — or come from — the groups within which they feel most comfortable.

The network aspect of this has been played up, but in reality the network structure has only been of optimal effect because it has been complemented by a traditional — if temporary — command and decision-making structure.

The facilitators of this new-style movement have deliberately kept the program minimal. Drawing together groups from across the spectrum — from anti-technology anarchists to corporate reformists — they demand nothing more (or less) than the abolition of the WTO. In fact even such a minimal demand is not subscribed to by all the groups in the movement. Many would like to see the WTO strengthened and with a different character — a world trade organisation that regulates the global economy to ensure adherence to labour, environmental and cultural standards. Nor is the composition of the movement wholly dedicated to these standard left/social movement goals. Much of the clout at Seattle was provided by the Teamsters who had turned out in force, and were ‘geed up’ by a rousing speech from Reform Party far-right candidate Patrick Buchanan.

But such a movement hangs together only as long as it meets with no significant success. When it has achieved a degree of power and public support sufficient to get proposals for global political change on the table, the cracks will start to show. Many of the shock troops for the Seattle protest came from veterans of Earth First and the Ruckus Society — American anarchists whose critique is leftist, but whose solution of frontier-style self-organisation sits on the libertarian-right end of the spectrum.

Furthermore there is no clear road to the end ostensibly being sought. GM companies found themselves suddenly surrounded by angry consumers and shareholders — their individual, private nature making them easy to topple. Nothing less than a mass withdrawal from the WTO is likely to crush it, and that seems unlikely anytime soon.

In the midst of this explosion of action, it has become almost impossible to talk about the lag in theoretical understanding of the contemporary situation. After twenty years of defeat and all but total marginalisation, such talk is held to be defeatist, jinxing. At the meetings that flowered across Europe after the successful J18 protests of mid-1999, even the most purist of the remnant revolutionary marxist sects pulled their heads well in, for fear of being shouted down at even the most cursory mention of ‘class’, ‘ideology’ or the like. Anarchism of a determinedly anti-analytical nature has become the dominant tone of the movement, especially in Europe, connecting with punk/situationist style groups such as Reclaim the Streets, the rave movement and other subcultures. This is being re-evaluated in the UK, after a series of ill-thought-out and counterproductive actions — such as digging up a public park in order to ‘reclaim’ it — but there is no immediate prospect of a lift in consciousness.

Nevertheless it will come. As the disastrous and stultifying final stages of Marxism-Leninism become a historical memory, and the ineffectuality of action without theory becomes apparent, a hunger for praxis will arise. What currently passes for a political philosophy among the new anti-global-free-trade movement derives neither from Marx, nor Bakunin, nor even Rousseau, but from Pollyanna. It is a stark refusal to acknowledge the profound contradictions of community and individuality, global connection and democracy, surplus production and equality, and an ideology whose minimalism disguises the contradictions whose fault lines run across the middle of the protestors’ own lives. I can’t be the only person to have stopped off at a Starbucks en route to a demonstration whose participants were busy trashing one.

Such a historical juncture throws the question of what is to be done firmly back on ‘theoretical producers’ as to how they communicate with groups who may once again be receptive to a fundamental rethinking, whose vision may now be wide enough to encompass a new big picture. Above all, this must connect the everyday life of the North with the global and corporate structures oppressing the South. This is a prelude to a post-marxism that does not go under that name, a new key to understanding the world. It is one that has been underway for some time in the publications of this organisation, and from other quarters. Continuing the revolutionary spirit of what has gone before means abandoning much of its vocabulary — and with it the ubiquitous ‘post’ prefix that went with it. Class, alienation, labour-power, value, ideology and so on — the general structures which underpin them have not changed, but their particular and material form has, and these new phenomena must be named and identified. ‘Class’ for example can be a general term to cover material social categories/agents, but its particular form is still interpreted as a relationship to ownership of the means of production — where physical production has been the privileged term. To theorise a world in which intellectual production will determine the form of value requires a rethinking of material social categories. ‘Class’ may now be too laden with the particular connotations of Marxism to serve as a useful general term for these categories/ agents.

To talk in a new way of the contradictions of an information/media/excess society and to show that such phenomena are a dimension of the same processes that immiserates the South may be seen as quixotic at a time when many believe that events have confirmed the most basic tenets of Marxism. But without a better picture of how things are, there can be no sketching of a vision of ‘socialism’ that is neither fantastical nor mundane. And without a better picture of what a revolutionised future would look like, there can be no sustained revolutionary (in the widest sense of the term) movement in the twenty-first century.